Crow’s Feet
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Crow’s Feet

You Have to Laugh

It’s so obvious, so elementary, do we really need to say it out loud? Apparently, yes!

Image via unknown at care.com

If there’s one thing I learned aging from my old ladies — women in their 90s and 100s whom I’ve befriended for the last thirty-odd years — it’s this:

You’d better have a sense of humor.

And it’s not just because aging tends to usher in new challenges — for one, hearing what a friend actually says as you stand at the seashore. Laughter is good for you at any age.

Norman Cousins, author of the 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness, famously healed crippling and allegedly “incurable” arthritis through laughter. Researchers have since documented its benefits.

The healing and protective effects of optimisim and — literally — laughing out loud are now well-known. Positivity is not only the best medicine, laughter can keep you healthy.

Granted, we don’t all laugh at the same kinds of material. As long as something gets those endorphins flowing.

Two of my favorite old ladies, Zelda, who almost made it to 105 and Marge, who passed recently at 104 1/3, were both fun and funny. I always laughed in their presence — but for distinctly different reasons.

Zelda

Zelda honed her craft like a Borsch-belt performer, memorizing jokes and off-color poems and songs. She practiced routines on her daily three-mile walks and always had just the right joke at the ready.

All she needed was a prompt, what she’d call an a propos. For example, if the conversation turned to concerns about memory, she might trot out this one:

Two old guys on a bench at a bus stop in Miami

First guy turns to the second, and says, “T-G-I-F.” To be certain that his friend understands, he clarifies, “Thank God It’s Friday.”

The other guy responds, “S-H-I-T.”

The first guy looks puzzled. “Huh?”

“So Happens It’s Thursday.”

Eight years ago, I made a plan for my grandsons, then 5, 8, and 10, to meet Zelda, then around 100. I was dying for her to meet them but wondered how the boys might react to someone “so old.” (I had no idea how unconsciously ageist that was!)

I needn’t have worried. In minutes, Zelda had them in stitches. The youngest, Charlie, still remembers the punchline of one of Zelda’s favorites:

The golden years are here at last.

The golden years can kiss my ass.

When he recites it, Charlie also finishes as Zelda did: turning her back to the audience and slapping herself on the behind.

Zelda lived to laugh and to make others laugh. She performed at her own 100th birthday party. She also took her act on the road, visiting local senior centers.

During that years I knew her, Zelda shuttled back and forth between her winter apartment in Florida and her home town, St. Louis. At 103, a health scare convinced her to move close to family and into a building offering long-term care.

Independence is precious as you age. After being on her own for so long, moving into a facility was hard. In Zelda’s case, humor and a dash of chutzpah helped her feel at home. Within a few months, she was doing stand-up comedy routines in the auditorium.

Marge

Marge had an entirely different, more spontaneous sense of humor. At our first meeting — a holiday party in our New York apartment building — I teased her as she walked away from the buffet table, a paper plate filled with food perched on the seat of her Rollator.

“You’d better watch out,” I said jokingly (half wondering if she’d realize I was kidding). “Don’t forget and sit down.”

“Oh, thanks — good suggestion,” she said, smiling broadly and clearly not insulted. Without missing a beat, she added, “Then again, I like to make an impression.”

A few years later, after we’d become friends, I asked Marge if I could interview her about being “the oldest investor in New York.” She scoffed at the idea. Most of my old ladies, members of the stoic, civic-mind GI generation don’t consider themselves particularly remarkable and if they do, they’re not going to say it out loud.

But I kept pressing, “How are you still at it?”

Marge: “I keep breathing.”

I’m so grateful to have captured that moment on video.

The Secret: A Loop of Laughter

When I ask my old ladies the “secret” of their longevity and good life, their first answer is luck.

“Luck” is not in our control. However, laughter is.

That is not to say, we laugh all the time — don’t need to. We try to make choices that result in an intermittent supply of humorous, pleasant, rewarding, positive moments flowing through our lives.

It’s a “loop” because it’s self-reinforcing. When we smile, we want to smile more, because it feels good.

You’re more likely to keep that loop of laughter going, if you…

  • Pick friends who like to laugh. Granted not everyone is a comic or a wit, but it’s easy to spot the terminally dour. Cross those sourpusses off your list.
  • Read anything by David Sedaris or Nora Ephron. Well, those are my go-tos. Read whomever you think is funny.
  • Listen to and watch funny stuff. Three friends and I recently watched the HBO series, Getting It On and howled through most of it. Boy! Did that feel good. Perhaps insensitivity, dark humor, and pratfalls in an end-of-life facility are not your cup of tea. Not to worry; there’s more funny stuff out there than you can consume. Google “funniest [movies, series, podcasts, books],” and take a few for a test run.
  • Watch dumb videos, especially those with babies and animals, without judging yourself. Yes, you may roll your eyes at what’s on TikTok. Marvel at what some people do for attention. But don’t be surprised when, every now and then, you actually laugh out loud.
  • Do activities that bring out the kid in you. Finger-painting? Singing? Splashing in a pool? Kids laugh intuitively and naturally. We grown-ups have to remind ourselves to lighten up.
  • Keep an ear out for humorous stories and retell them. It’s surprisingly rewarding to make others laugh.
  • Do improv. Some of my best friends do improv (you know who you are, Bertha). As I said to my grandson who joined an improv group in his freshman year of college, “What could be better? You get to create and laugh.”
  • Laugh at yourself. We all have mishaps. Turn yours into amusing stories, even if it’s to admit that you found your keys in the refrigerator. (Remember that teenagers are forgetful, too.)
  • Stay engaged — in life, in conversation. And if you need a hearing aid, for goodness sake, wear one! There’s absolutely nothing amusing about making people repeat themselves.

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Melinda Blau

Melinda Blau

Writer/speaker/observer of relationships, I'm a hip old lady at large. I cover the dramas we all play out. Writing's a bitch but it, mostly, makes me happy.